We’ve all heard the term "dirty combo" or "dirty combo feel" before. We’ve all seen the absolute destruction that some of the most advanced combo decks to be played have brought to unfortunate opponents. But how many of us know or understand what combo is, or rather, when does a deck goes from having a good level of card synergy to being a true blooded combo deck? To start we’ll have to get a basic understanding of the two, we’ll start with basic card synergy.
One of my favorite designs that has always had nice internal synergy is the classic White Weenie deck. WW is based on working with a 2 CC mana curve that occasionally reached into 3 CC. With consistent plays such as turn 1 Savanah Lions, turn 2 White Knight, turn 3 White Night & Tundra Wolves it made for a fast clock that put the opponent on the defense right away. The weakness with this however is that in order to gain the speed of cheap creatures you get weaker ones where the average P/T is about 1.5. This is where additions of cards such as Crusade, Jihad, and Glorious Anthem come into play. All three of the just named cards give the WW deck a patch for its weakness by enlarging its creatures, hence helping to both speed the game clock and protect against things such as an untimely Pyroclasm or Steamblast. The beauty of these cards as well is that they only cost 2 or 3 mana hence maintaining the WW deck’s mana curve while giving it great boosts. This is what should be considered good synergy.
Synergy is the effect of cards interacting to enhance the playing environment without creating an outright win condition and while still maintaining things such as mana curve and deck efficiency.
Now we look at combo. One of the most well heard of combo decks of recent times has been Necro-Donate, aka Trix. The basis of this deck is to gather the individual pieces of its win condition and put them into play as quickly as possible. This was done by accelerated card drawing and mana production. Before two seperate waves of bannings by the DCI, this deck did both with great efficiency and could often produce its win condition by turn 3, often before many opponents could defend against it without specialized decks to counter-act the “combo”. The weakness in this deck however is that it often only had its sole win condition and all other cards were based on either getting it faster, via use of tutors for instance, or protecting it with pre-emptive effects such as discard, and ACC counters such as the infamous Force of Will. Thus if the condition failed to appear or was halted by the opposing deck, the combo deck lost with no other alternate routes for victory.
So in this we can say that combo is based on producing large amounts of mana and/or searching/drawing engines to find its win condition while utilizing all its resources to force said condition into play.
Other substantial differences between decks that have high synergy and decks that are flat out combo are things such as the style of sideboarding and that a flowing mana curve is much more obvious in a synergy based deck rather then a combo one. Sideboarding with a combo deck for example is usually based on either changing its win condition totally so that it can throw off its anti-decks that are sure to appear or to give it ways to defend itself more efficiently with cards that require opponents to do something, aka, color/deck hosers. Sideboarding with a synergy deck will rarely change its win conditions and only give cards that can give it an advantage by what the opponent is doing, once again, color/deck hosers.
Now one of the problems with this analysis is that there are some decks that have trouble deciding where they fit in. Take Replenish for example. During its UBC age it was cute, almost useful, generally non-threatening. Then Nemesis came out with its Paralax enchantments and Replenish appeared again in a much more lethal form. With the ability to steadily recycle both Paralax Wave and Paralax Tide it gave Replenish a great advantage over opponents by causing large level disruption. However, Replenish didn’t have a sole win condition as there were several different builds of it. Most had Oppalesence so that they could beat away on an opponent with enchantments made creatures, but some used Ankh of Mishra with Paralax Tide to repeatedly do damage to the opponent from their lands popping in and out of play. Another build all together is the extended "21" or Pandaburst build that would attempt to get the win condition of a Pandamonium and Saporling Burst into play so that it could deal a nearly instantaneous 21 points of damage, killing most opponents.
While all of these different builds have been formally classified as combo by many players. It brings us back to the original question, when did they cross the line to comboville? Trix started out that way and has never been anything but combo, classic WW probably never will be, but Replenish had to grow into it.
Replenish started with Oppalesence making global enchantments into creatures and Replenish to hopefully get alot of them into play at once, hence making good synergy with the Oppalesence, not quite combo yet though. In order for Replenish to work more efficiently it needed the enchantments in the graveyard, hence the inclusion on cards such as Frantic Search, once again we have nice synergy, but it still hasn’t broken the barrier. The opponent could still do many things to defend itself such as cast Wrath of God or Tranquility. Then the paralax pair came out and that I believe is when the deck evolved into pure blooded combo. With the paralax cards the Replenish player could now neutralize the opponents ability to respond and defend by removing lands and creatures and even cards from hand for the players that included a nexus or two from the game temporarily, there by creating the "I cast replenish, you die" win condition.
The combo player had to cast but a single spell to bring victory to hand or at least very close, regardless of what the current game environment was like. So we may add this to our definition of combo.
Combo decks consistently have a win condition that radically and often irreversably changes the state of the game into the favor of the combo player regardless of the previous state of the game.
Now that these things have been established, at least to me, lets look at some other decks and cards that have trouble being labled.
Squirrel Prison: The simple use of Opposition and Deranged Hermit to lock down an opponent and give beatings with hordes of ravenous furry critters. Is this a combo? I don’t think so as it doesn’t follow the traits of a combo deck such as the sole focus on getting set cards into play at all costs. The idea is to maximize the power of Opposition by getting more creatures into play as fast as possible. The hermit gives this by letting us have 5 1/1 creatures for 5 mana instead of a typical 4/4 or 5/5 for 5 mana. Thus improving the efficiency of Opposition, but not being able to say, "I cast Deranged Hermit, you lose."
Fires: A simple R/G beatdown deck. It uses fast and large creatures to deal lethal damage to an opponent as quickly as it can while using minimal disruption. The only thing that makes this deck stand out is its name sake card Fires of Yavimaya, giving an extra punch or two from creatures as soon as it can. Its aggresive and can be very fast, but its not in any way a combo deck, and as many people are finding has steadily been being beaten out of contention in the T2 environment. It simply uses good card synergy to give baddies like Blastoderm and extra valuable shot in the teeth before tripping into oblivion.
Living Death: This card and the decks that have surrounded it have been known to swing on both sides of the line, but I believe that its simply a great master of synergy and not a combo deck. My own extended build of this has been accused of being a combo deck because it uses cards such as Fallen Angel to maximize my LD returns and cards like Nekratal and Flametongue Kavu to attempt to minimize my opponents. However the deck is also easily stoppable by a Wrath of God, counterspells, or several other cards. It doesn’t depend on Living Death to be cast to win, its just nice when it does go off. The original build was black with a touch of red for flametongues and a pair of anarchists. The current build and the one that I can understand why it can be viewed as combo has gotten rid of the anarchists and included blue for Frantic Search, Probe, Fact or Fiction, and Forbids. Now the deck digs through to put creatures into the graveyard and thus requires the Living Death to go off more often in order to win. So now, is the deck combo or still just using synergy? It doesn’t fit the standard parameters of a combo deck except for the high amount or searching, yet some people say that it is, others that it isn’t.
So the next time that somebody accuses you of being a dirty combo player, or you say it to someone else, make sure that you or the other person isn’t just choked at losing to a well tuned "synergy high" deck and that they understand what it is that makes combo, combo.
For those that are interested:
Ura’s Living Death ver. BUr 2.2
4X Frantic Search
4X Fact or Fiction
4X Force of Will
4X Living Death
4X Fallen Angel
4X Flametongue Kavu
1X Spirit of the Night
1X Commander Greven il-Vec
4X Underground Sea
4X Volcanic Island
2X City of Brass
2X Soldevi Excavations
62 cards and actually extended legal.
Nick "Ura" Saviskoff
Some guy who thinks he’s a cat...